Being Human and Making History…

Freya Cox Jensen, University of Exeter



Being Human and making history: grand aspirations, for a damp evening in late November!  And, perhaps, as is sometimes the case with attempts to engage the public with historical research, the catchy titles promised more than they delivered.  Nevertheless, the chance to ‘make history’ is what I offered the participants in my contribution to this year’s Being Human Festival.

Being Human, for those who have somehow missed it, is the UK’s only national (and now international) festival of the humanities, led by the School of Advanced Studies at the University of London, in partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the British Academy.  Running since 2014, this academic year the theme of the festival was ‘lost and found’, and between 17th and 25th November 2017, more than 89 institutions offered over 300 public events around the UK, all free of charge.

As part of the festival a few years ago, I put together a series of evening concerts, sharing popular songs from the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries with audiences in the Exeter area. For the 2017 festival, I returned to one of my favourite venues, The Walronds in Cullompton, to run a creative workshop for members of the local community.

The evening kicked off with an introduction to a few stories from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Devon: stories about the lives of real people whose loves and losses have made it into the historical record through a variety of sources, some of which are now lost, and which participants were invited to rediscover (Lost and Found, see?) through their own creative re-imaginings.  Among other tales, I told my audience about the most savage and barbarous murder of Mr Page of Plymouth, a goldsmith, by his wife Eulalia and her lover George Strangwidge, which occurred sometime c. 1590.  Eulalia and George’s love was not to be; their crime was discovered, and they were both executed at Barnstable.

Some relevant sources from the time exist, or have probably existed in the past, and I provided some of these for people to have a look at: a play by Ben Jonson and Thomas Dekker, which is not extant, though various documents about the play are; three ballads about the murder, from the point of view of Eulalia and George; a tract describing the murder and the subsequent judicial proceedings; and a retelling or two, with details of dubious provenance.

National Library of Scotland. Online at English Broadside Ballad Archive, University of California

I shared the lamentable tale of Jane Reynolds, also of Plymouth, known in the seventeenth century by the ballad title, ‘A warning for married women.’  According to the song, Jane fell in love with a young sailor; they became engaged, but he was pressed into the navy where he was subsequently killed in action; on receiving news of his death, Jane married a local carpenter instead and bore three children. But while the carpenter was away on business, the spirit of the sailor returned to Jane.  He tempted her away (into Faerie? Into the depths of the sea?)…and she was never seen again.  Consumed by grief, the carpenter hanged himself, leaving their three children to starve.


A so-called ‘true story’, this popular song was intended as a cautionary tale, reinforcing the virtues of chastity and continence in women, married and otherwise.  In circulation throughout the seventeenth century, over time it has evolved into the folk classic, ‘The Demon Lover’.

For the rest of the evening, and over refreshments, the workshop participants talked about the historical stories, about the past, and about the human condition; using these and other early modern histories as their inspiration, they set about creating a range of new responses in the form of poems, recipes, reflections, short stories, and even a schematic diagram, which we brought together in a show-and-tell at the end of the session.  The discussion was lively, the past proved stimulating, and the creativity was truly inspirational.  Here are some of the histories they made, including ballads and a lost Tudor play:



Poems by Graham Sessions


Mr Page of Plymouth


Mr Page of Plymouth

A Goldsmith was of trade,

And fairly well proportioned

In the bank account it’s said,

Was the subject of atrocity

Of the most barbaric kind,


So savage that a similar one

Can hardly come to mind.

He suffered long in agony

In the last throes of his life


Due jointly to George Strangwidge

And Eulalia his wife.

I recall in 1590,

Or was is 91?,

Whichever date doth fit the best

The deadly deed was done.

Early English Books Online

Was it by strangulation

Or pistol shot ’t’was made,

Or the forward thrust

Of a very shiny blade?

I’ll not recount the details

Of this dreadful act, severe,

Suffice to say just listen

And the other details, hear.

Eulalia was forced to marry

Mr Page to her regret,

So started a relationship

With Strangwidge and was set

To plan her husband’s death,

It didn’t take them long,

And killed he was so very soon.

Was it right or was it wrong?

I make no judgement either way

As that judgement was decided

By legal process, very long,

At Barstaple assizes.

I am sure I’ve missed some details

As I recount with elocution,

The Eulalia and Strangwidge deaths –

A Barnstaple execution.



Mr Page of Plymouth (revisited briefly)


There was a young goldsmith called Page

Broadside Ballads Online from the Bodlelian Libraries

Who was killed at a very young age

His wife was to blame

And her lover for shame

’T’was an outpouring of extreme rage.



Jane Reynolds of Plymouth


The lamentable tale of Reynolds, Jane

Who married a sailor who died in vain,

Then married again to a carpenter bold

But the spirit of the sailor dear Jane did hold.

He lured Jane away like the swag of a thief

And the carpenter then is consumed with grief.

He lamented alone while sea faeries sang

So found himself rope and his self did hang.

That was the end of our woodworking rover,

Remembered in song called ‘The Demon Lover’.



The Tragedy of John Cox of Collumpton (1599) by William Haughton and John Day – a lost Tudor play

Nick Savage, November 2017

Simon Forman saw “Cox of Collumpton” at the Rose playhouse on 9 March 1600 and wrote a description of it in his casebooks

The play was performed by the Admiral’s Men who were at this time second only in importance in English theatre after Shakespeare’s company (the Lord Chamberlain’s men).



On St Mark’s day John Cox shot his uncle in the head with a bow and arrow and inherits his land.

The same day 7 years on Mr Jarvis shot Cox through the head & slew him

His eldest son Henry inherits but on the same day 1 year later, was drowned by his younger brothers Peter & John who divide the land between themselves. The see a spirit in the shape of a bear. This drives Peter mad and he is locked up in a darkened room. One year later on the anniversary of their murder of their brother Peter smashes his brains out against a post and John stabs himself

In a subplot Mr Hammons son kills him, ignoring his father’s pleas for mercy. Hammond then promised that his son would betray himself by laughing & so he did. He was executed for the murder.



St. Mark’s Day, 25 April, is an unlucky day. Fairly obviously, this is true for the Cox family, but it is also true elsewhere in early modern belief, where St. Mark’s Day functions almost as a secondary Halloween, six months apart from it in the calendar. Traditionally, St. Mark’s Eve is a night when one can see visions identifying which neighbours are to die in the next twelve months. On the day itself it was considered unlucky to work, and in particular unlucky to work the land.

Forman’s reference to the bear suggests that it was a familiar symbol of guilt and sin to the Elizabethans. In the ‘Cox of Collumpton’ the bear was a devil in disguise, and in ‘Mucedorus’ there is a reference to the convention of the devil and bear being shown as one.


My retelling

This Tudor tale is a tragedy of the bloodiest kind set during the reign of good Queen Bess. It is the story of a family called Cox who lived around the end of the 16th century in Cullompton. John Cox had 3 sons: Henry, Peter and John, but he was very poor for his uncle James Cox had inherited all the family’s land while James’s father had been left penniless and then died a young man. John and his sons scratched a meagre living as farm labourers, often without enough to eat and with the poorest of clothes. While his uncle grew rich from the wool and kersies he sold to the cloth merchants, a bitter family feud meant that he would not so give them so much as the scraps from the table after one of his legendary banquets, held each year on his birthday, the 25th April.

Now the 25th of April is St. Mark’s Day, a truly unlucky day, a second Halloween. On this night it is said that certain people can see visions identifying which neighbours are to die in the next twelve months and at the end of one these legendary banquets in 1588 one of James Cox’s guests, a Mrs Hammon, began weeping uncontrollably. Many guests assumed that she was worried about the rumours of a coming Spanish invasion and tried to reassure her that England would prevail.  However, when James Cox asked her what was wrong she replied “I have seen your death sir, you will die within the year!”. Well James was sceptical of these old idolatrous ideas and laughed it off. By April of the next year he was still alive and well and laughing at the foolish superstitions of his neighbours. The Spanish Armada had been routed and soon an English Armada would set sail to show the Spaniards who really ruled the waves. Now James had no children and his nephew John knew that he had not made a will and the lands would come to him if James died. So upon St Mark’s day John Cox took his stoutest bow of Yew and lay in wait for his uncle. In a concealed spot he hid himself, and waited for James to ride by, then shot him in the head.

While speculation was rife that John had murdered his uncle, nothing was proved and so John took possession of the farm and its lands. He quickly got rid of most the servants including the steward, Jarvis. For seven long years Jarvis held a grudge against John Cox, and each year grew more angry and bitter about the man who had killed his master and reduced him to poverty. Finally, seven years to the day that his former master was killed, Jarvis took a bow and shot John Cox in the head.

John had left all his lands to his eldest son Henry, and just small bequests to the other two sons. Now Henry was as selfish as his uncle had been, and refused to provide anything for his brothers John and Peter. Being consumed with jealousy, they decided to kill Henry. So as the sun was setting on St Mark’s day 1597 together they dragged him to the River Culm and drowned him. As they sat planning how they would divide the lands between them, they saw a strange light. Glowing eerily the light crept closer until they saw the shape of a monstrous bear approaching and they fled the scene of their crime. Day by day the thought of this spirit and of the terrible crime they had committed preyed on their minds and they slowly descended into madness. Peter would roam Mutterton Moor looking for his dead brother shouting “Henry, Henry please save me from the bear” while John stopped speaking entirely and locked himself away. A year on from the murder and their guilt became too much for them to stand any longer. John stabbed himself to death alone in his house, while up on Mutterton Moor that night Peter smashed his brains out on a post. And if you go out by Five Cross Ways on the night of the 25th of April you can still hear the mad cries of Peter Cox begging his dead brother to save him from bear.


About the author: Dr Freya Cox Jensen is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Exeter and author of Reading the Roman Republic in Early Modern England (Brill, 2012).



Cox of Collumpton, Lost Plays Database. Ed. Roslyn L. Knutson, David McInnis, and Matthew Steggle. Melbourne: University of Melbourne, 2009.

British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue, Volume 4, By Martin Wiggins, Catherine Teresa Richardson, Oxford University Pres, .p160-161

The two sources above are the major sources I used in researching this. The initial information about the existence of the play however came from:

Adventuring in Dictionaries: New Studies in the History of Lexicography, John Considine, 2010, p32-33,


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